Minton: COVID-19 changes could have long-term impact on courts

Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. updated state legislators remotely on the court system's reopening Thursday. Changes that reduce transportation and other costs may become be permanently adopted into court operations.

Some changes implemented by the state's court system in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may become permanent, according to its highest judicial official.

Chief Justice of Kentucky John D. Minton Jr. updated the legislature Thursday on how the Judicial Branch has responded to the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Speaking remotely before the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary, which met at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Minton described described how the court system took unprecedented measures in the wake of the pandemic, including limiting in-person proceedings; encouraging judges to use audio/video technology to conduct hearings; postponing all civil trials, hearings and motions; and suspending new juror orientations.

In conjunction with the Supreme Court's overarching emergency order, additional administrative orders addressed staffing in the Offices of Circuit Court Clerk, existing custody and parenting time orders, continuing legal education deadlines, appellate filing deadlines and the emergency release of individuals arrested for certain offenses.

"While in-person services were limited at court facilities during much of April and May, our courts were never closed," he said. "Judges, clerks and court staff stayed busy behind the scenes, processing filings and payments, taking phone calls from the public, rescheduling future court dates, navigating a new world of remote court proceedings and preparing for the eventual resumption of in-person services."

To prepare for a phased reopening, which began on Monday, Chief Justice Minton created three task forces to work with judges and circuit clerks. As part of her work with the family court task force, Justice Debra Hembree Lambert -- who lives in Burnside -- recently toured the Pulaski County Detention Center to witness remote hearings from the perspectives of inmates and jail staff.

"I am grateful to Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes, chair of the Circuit Court Task Force; Justice Debra Hembree Lambert, chair of the Family Court Task Force; and Justice Michelle M. Keller, chair of the District Court Task Force, for their leadership in guiding their respective committees. The feedback we received from the judges and clerks on the task forces helped shape the court's guidance and directives."

The reopening plan was based on two Supreme Court orders that provide guidance on the expansion of court operations: a general order relating to the health and safety requirements for expanding court operations and a more specific order with guidance on certain case types.

Chief Justice Minton said that strict standards for health and safety were paramount in the planning. "One of our guiding principles was the involuntary nature of most court proceedings. People can choose whether to eat at a restaurant or go shopping, but in most instances they don't get to choose whether they go to court. I think we have, for the most part, struck a delicate balance between addressing our constitutional obligations to hear pending matters while also protecting the health of court staff and the public."

With the courts reconsidering how they do business, the pandemic response may ultimately improve the efficiency of the services they provide.

"Some of the processes that have been adopted, like the use of phone and video conferences for routine hearings and motion hours, have been discussed by the Civil Justice Reform Commission as a best practice for civil dockets," he said. "And we have quickly realized the economic benefits and efficiencies of using remote technology in criminal matters, especially in cases where inmates otherwise would have been transported from another county to attend an in-person hearing."

Chief Justice Minton said the pandemic has also highlighted the need to focus on electronic filing as the standard rather than the exception. "The ability to submit court filings from your desk allows the work of lawyers and courts to continue regardless of whether the courthouse doors are open."

He said that one of the most beneficial unintended consequences of the pandemic has been the decrease in the pretrial jail populations. "On March 20, I asked judges to work with jailers and other county officials to responsibly release as many inmates as possible as quickly as possible to avoid the potential for a devastating outbreak," Chief Justice Minton said. "I am proud of how swiftly our criminal justice partners - judges, jailers, prosecutors and defenders - worked together to safely release low-risk defendants.

The Department of Family & Juvenile Services has successfully used virtual platforms for diversion programs, screenings, assessments, telehealth services and ongoing case monitoring that links young people to resources necessary for their success.

In addition, the Department of Specialty Courts quickly transitioned to an online format to serve the more than 2,000 Drug Court, Mental Health Court and Veterans Treatment Court participants who could not wait for in-person services to resume. Staff began meeting daily with participants by phone or remotely. "Although court was being held differently, we were encouraged to learn that in Kentucky, as well as across the nation, treatment court participants were maintaining their recovery and, in many situations, thriving in this new virtual environment," he said.

The chief justice began his remarks by also addressing the racism and injustice that continue to oppress here in the commonwealth and across the country.

"The court system and the legal profession must continue to advocate for a diverse bench and bar to reflect the communities that we serve," Minton said. "The Kentucky Court of Justice is committed to hearing your cries for justice and working to eradicate the racial and ethnic disparities within our system."

Chief Justice Minton closed by saying that the most important lesson he has learned from the pandemic is the incredible resiliency of the judges, circuit clerks and court staff. "It is impossible to completely shift the course of a vessel as large as the Kentucky Court of Justice without hitting some bumps along the way. But I am immensely proud of how quickly our elected officials and employees have adapted to a completely new way of doing business and how willingly they learned and adopted new technologies."

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